|Limbic Signal's Terpene Lexical Network.|
Just kidding about the antioxidants thing. I’m really into the words we use for smells, and words in general. So I’ve definitely noticed the word Terpene come on the scene. It’s the magic word in the cannabis industry right now. Terpenes are ultimately the plant-secreted oils that give the flower its aroma. In other words, they are the smell of pot, both the good and the bad smells.
Terpenes are already an important part of the olfactory world, as they are the primary means of communication among plants, bacteria, and insects. And you can probably call the essential oils of plants something else, but terpenes sounds pretty cool, so that’s it.
For all its popularity, there have been few attempts to quantify directly the olfactory profiles of the cannabis industry. I’m talking about using legit hi-tech smell-sniffing machines; nobody had done this yet. We hear about ‘skunk’ and ‘citrus,’ but we haven’t tested a group of words for its usefulness in describing cannabis in all its olfactory instantiations. (There’s a pretty good reason for this, i.e., Federal law; see below.)*
He Smells an Opportunity
Sensory scientist Avery Gilbert was quick to notice this Lingua Vacuum, and quick to provide the solution. First he created a company that will now be known as the promulgator of the cannabis odor vocab – Headspace Sensory. He then wrote himself a study, got approval for testing, scored some product off the recreational market in Colorado, along with some equipment, a labspace and some volunteers, and here we are with a rigorously tested lexicon – 48 words that can satisfy most descriptions of most of the cannabis on the market today.
There were some great results from his work, especially regarding false associations between odor description and expected potency. I’ll go into that shortly, but first I should describe how he did all this. Because you know, details matter.
The cannabis product itself was chosen to represent a comprehensive sample of what’s out there (Lemon Diesel, OG Kush, Snoop OG, etc.). As for the words to use for describing the aromas of these different products, he did what any serious, academically-based person would do – he went to Leafly, and took a bunch of their olfactory-descriptors (earthy, musty, spicy, fruity, etc.). I also did this when I made my terpene chart, check it out here. The list he generates is deliberately over-inclusive, which means there may be redundancies as well as unlikely terms. This is a move I totally support, as olfactory identity has a lot to do with the margins and the seemingly extraneous.
The next step was to mechanically “sniff” the products, producing an analysis of the physical chemicals evaporating from them (Limonene, Myrcene, etc.). And finally, he asked real humans to sniff those same products, and choose from the list of potential descriptors enough words to satisfy a worthy olfactory articulation.
On To the Results
The overall purpose here was to survey the limits of an olfactory lexicon for cannabis. How many words do we really need to accurately describe all the cannabis that’s on the market? Avery concludes with 48 words, clustered into two major groups of 1) citrus, lemon, sweet, and pungent and 2) earthy, herbal, and woody in the other. For reference, similar lexicons for coffee and wine cover about 85 words.
Here’s the total list; I also typed it out below:
|Headspace’s Terpene Lexicon|
Time for the interesting part. Exactly as you would expect (had you read my book that is), smells have confused us. In Gilbert’s study, pot samples in the Citrus group (citrus, lemon, sweet, and pungent) were expected to be more potent than those in the Earthy group (earthy, herbal, and woody). Coincidentally, my terpene chart seen above does the same thing, clustering the same descriptors in the middle because they are the most common among all the terpenes. For whatever reason, people associate that citrusy-sweet-sour aroma with THC. For the record, THC does not smell. I am curious as to what others think about the reason for this, although I am sure it’s complicated (and has nothing to do with the fact that the citrusy-pungent profile made its appearance on the scene in tandem with higher potencies?). Anyone who’s been reading High Times since the early 90’s, feel free to weigh in!
Deeper into the olfactory funky skunk lexicon, Gilbert found that “bad” smells were associated with “good” stuff, and vice versa. In other words, the skunky, pungent, sour diesel, etc. flavors shouted DANK! while others whispered weakly, “you just got beat,” which also translates as “backyard boogie.”
This is great and I could talk about it forever, as it takes us to one of the most important things to know about our sense of smell – it is totally hedonically neutral, and totally malleable. Parmesan cheese is supposed to be gross to us, because it is rotting animal proteins. Kimchi is rotting cabbage. But some humans have been trained by their culture to like Parmesan cheese and kimchi AND the bad-smelling parts of the cannabis plant. That’s how smells work. There are no good or bad smells, only a code written by our culture over time.
Transgressing Cultural Limits
There’s something special about liking something you’re not supposed to. It becomes part of your identity. Most Americans like Parmesan cheese as a result of the Italian-American axis of culinary identity that is the pasta dinner, so it’s not the best example to use here. But kimchi has seen a sharp rise in popularity since it was “discovered” a handful of years ago on a taco truck somewhere on the West Coast of the United States. And now, people who like the smell of it have some kind of cultural advantage over others. Twenty years ago, it would have been a reason to spit ethnic vulgarities (and they smell so bad like rotten cabbage!), but today it does the same thing, only in the other direction (what a loser, I guess he can’t handle the smell of rotten cabbage in his tacos!).
If this is a topic you’re interested in, check out the essay “Quantum Hedonics” in my book which you can find on Google books for free.
If you recall, there was a time in your life that alcohol tasted like poison (alcohol is also fermented btw). Even sex has smells that at one time were pretty offensive to your younger self. But as we mature, the “acquired” taste for these things becomes a badge we wear as proof of our journey into adulthood and independence. The smell of cannabis is no different. To come to appreciate these “negative” properties of a thing is a cultural transgression that works in perfect concert with the illegal/taboo nature of consuming drugs, as well as the liberating effects of consciousness-expanding substances.
Perhaps it is the last two parts of the package that drive such a strong preference for the “bad” smells of pot products. Gilbert, in his report, makes it a point to mention that coffee and wine do not present skunky smells in a positive light – they are instead seen as a defect in these products. Beer however, which does not have its own aroma wheel like wine or coffee, suffers from being skunked just the same. And yet, as IPA’s have dominated the craft market, it should make you wonder whether the skunky-hops flavor of those beers are another example of consumer desires to transgress olfactive-cultural boundaries.
Thanks to Gilbert we now have a proper list of words to describe these products. It allows us all to be on the same page, and it furthers the growth in this budding industry by educating producers and consumers alike, and by providing a consistent basis for comparison among different products. More importantly, as far as I’m concerned, it gives us a baseline of data (a bunch of words) that we can use to make further discoveries about our own quirks, misunderstandings and cognitive-perceptual fallibilities.
*The primary reason for this lack of research is that cannabis is still deemed illegal by the same entity that grants the right to conduct experiments on humans. In other words, in order to do any experiment that involves humans, one must secure approval, basically proving that their experiment won’t hurt the people involved. But that entity could never allow an experiment where illegal products are used. This is the state law/federal law puzzle that keeps things interesting here in the US.
Avery Gilbert’s Source Article:
Gilbert AN, DiVerdi JA (2018) Consumer perceptions of strain differences in Cannabis aroma. PLoS ONE 13(2): e0192247. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0192247
Avery Gilbert ‘s Blog:
Terpene Network Graph:
I made this terpene graph where I took all the top terps from Leafly, and their corresponding descriptors from the Sigma Aldrich catalog, and made an interactive chart out of it (interestingly, my list has 49 words).
More Terpene Experts:
Oren Cohen is an olfaction artist and the founder and CEO of Terpene Experts. He is an olfaction artist and educator who specializes in terpene profile development, as well as providing professional flavor and fragrance creator for a decade, with deep experience in cannabis, e-liquid, and the restaurant industry.
Here’s What They Do:
We are terpene profile artists who can replicate the exact nuances of any strain in world. Our expert noses can smell a bud and detect the nuanced notes of its terpene profile with accuracy that comes from years of work as flavorists and fragrance creators. This is an art and skill that no lab report can replace. AND they create new terpene spectrumsss.
And Why They Do It:
“When people use cartridges or pens, the entire experience and expectation is different than that of flower. They want to enjoy the flavor. They want the key profiles of their favorite strains to present themselves in a layered and cohesive fashion. It’s our job as expert terpene flavorists to deliver an experience that’s both familiar and compellingly unique to the delivery system.”
Learn More About Terpenes:
An Introduction to Terpenes: A four-week course with Oren Cohen to explore the origins, profiles and uses of terpenes at the Institute for Art and Olfaction in Los Angeles.
Leafly terpene article:
POST POST SCRIPT
From Avery Gilbert’s Study: The 48 odor descriptors used to characterize cannabis samples: